Clustered around a small bay at the far eastern end of the capital lies MUSCAT proper – often referred to as Old Muscat to distinguish it from the surrounding city to which it has now given its name. Despite serving as the home of the ruling sultan, Old Muscat retains the feel of a small and decidedly sleepy little town, quite distinct from the rest of the city, from which it’s separated by a swathe of craggy mountains. Additional protection is afforded by the unattractively restored city walls which guard the landward approaches. Right up until the mid-twentieth century the gates were closed three hours after dusk, and anyone venturing out onto the streets afterwards was obliged to carry a lantern with them – just one of the unusual local laws which also included a ban on smoking in the main streets and playing music in public.
At the heart of Old Muscat is Al Alam Palace (“Flag Palace”), the most important of the six royal residences of the ruling monarch, Sultan Qaboos, which are dotted around Muscat, Salalah and Sohar. Built in 1972, the palace is Oman’s most flamboyant example of contemporary Islamic design, with two long wings centred on a colourful, cube-like central building, its flat, overhanging roof supported by extravagantly flared blue and gold columns. The palace isn’t open to the public, although you can get a good view of the facade from the iron gates at the front.
The palace complex is impressively stage-managed, approached via a long pedestrianized boulevard framed by two arcaded colonnades, with copious amounts of highly polished marble covering every available surface. On either side stretches a cluster of impressive government buildings: huge, snow-white edifices sporting crenellated rooftops, traditional wooden balconies and window shutters. Look right as you approach the palace and you’ll also see a fine section of the original city walls snaking up the hillside, punctuated with three large watchtowers en route.
Of the various small museums scattered about Old Muscat, easily the most interesting is the Bait al Zubair (pronounced “Zubeer”; wwww.baitalzubairmuseum.com), with wide-ranging exhibits relating to Omani culture, customs and craftsmanship, all collected over the years by the Zubair family, who still own and run the museum.
The museum is spread across three separate buildings. The bulk of the collection is concentrated in the Bait al Bagh (“Garden House”), a large, white but not particularly exciting building dating from 1914, when it served as a former Zubair family residence. Displays include antique khanjars and firearms, as well as assorted household articles ranging from coffeepots to kohl holders and a good selection of traditional clothing and jewellery (look out for the ingenious salwa, a style of necklace worn by unmarried girls – the main “jewel” is actually a recycled bicycle reflector). Exiting the rear door of the building brings you into the surrounding gardens, where you’ll find a traditional barasti majlis and a falaj, along with an entertaining Omani-style model village.
Diagonally opposite the Bait al Bagh stands the Bait Dalaleel, where you’ll find the museum’s coffee shop along with a little cluster of rooms quaintly refurbished in traditional Omani style. Opposite the Bait Dalaleel stands the third of the museum’s trio of buildings, the Bait al Oud (“Grand House”). The ground floor is used for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. Upstairs, the first floor has interesting displays of old maps and wooden models of traditional dhows. Next door, a large room is stuffed full of an eye-catching array of household items from the original home of Sheikh al Zubair bin Ali. The second floor houses a random assortment of displays, including black and white photos from the late nineteenth century (unlabelled, unfortunately), and rooms full of old Islamic coins and historic prints.